Zoe McMillan and Frankie Sullivan from Marrickville Legal Centre. Photo: Anna Freeland

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BY ANNA FREELAND

To meet a growing demand for youth family and domestic violence support services, Marrickville Legal Centre has for the first time employed a Youth and Family Violence Solicitor.

With nine out of every ten clients under the age of 25 seeking domestic violence-related help, it is now the most common issue raised by young people at the Centre.
Solicitor Frankie Sullivan took up the post earlier this year to fulfil a need for youth-specific legal support, after the Centre experienced a surge in reporting. Ms Sullivan now works closely with the Centre’s Domestic and Family Violence Worker, Zoe McMillan, to offer vulnerable young people integrated legal and non-legal support.

“We’re seeing more and more reports by young people who have grown up with family violence from parents, siblings, or their extended family,” said Ms McMillan.
“But we’re also talking to lots of young people about intimate partner violence, already at quite a young age.”

While the need for extra support is clear, Ms Sullivan says the reasons for the increase in reporting are difficult to gauge.
“It’s unclear whether or not it’s because the violence itself is increasing or if it’s just becoming more talked about and understood among the young cohort,” said Ms Sulllivan.

Together, Ms McMillan and Ms Sullivan have been facilitating outreach programs through local schools and refuges to help educate young people about family and domestic violence.
“I think certainly because of the outreach work and the awareness-raising we’ve been getting approached by more young people and getting disclosures at a higher frequency,” said Ms McMillan.

For young victims of domestic violence, it can be difficult to recognise that there is a problem.
“Often young people have experienced violence their whole life, but they may not necessarily be informed that it’s not something they should have to live with and there are options to get help,” Ms McMillan said.

“As a society, when we talk about domestic violence it’s mostly in the context of adult relationships. We find that young people will perhaps see a campaign poster or advertisement and think it’s not relevant to them because they’re young and maybe the perpetrator is mum or dad and not an intimate partner.”

Ms McMillan says that there is a gap in broader education for young people about respectful relationships.
“We find lots of young people really don’t have a lot of awareness around their rights to be safe,” she said. “I think there could be a lot more time taken at school to speak about respectful relationships more generally.”

The pair has recently begun rolling out ‘Love Bites’, a program for school-aged children and teenagers focussing on healthy relationships and opening up conversation about domestic violence and sexual assault. Ms McMillan says the outcomes have been very positive.
“Especially in terms of increased disclosures,” she said. “We’re finding that young people really aren’t accessing this information anywhere else. Often, it might be the only time they’ve had sort of meaningful discussion about it.”

Ms Sullivan would also like to see greater emphasis on education about domestic violence in the school environment.
“At the end of a presentation, we often have a handful of young people wanting to talk to us, having realised that maybe they are in a situation that they think isn’t legal or isn’t safe and that they want some advice,” she said.

The holistic support service, run solely by the two women, replaces the Centre’s previous family and domestic violence support program, Yellow Card, and accepts clients not just from Marrickville but other parts of Sydney and regional NSW. For young victims seeking legal advice, counselling and other non-legal forms of support for domestic violence, services are limited.

“I think in terms of integrated legal and non-legal support services there aren’t a whole lot of options for young people. Legal-Aid does have a children civil law service but that’s quite targeted and often we’re seeing young people with family law issues,” said Ms McMillan.
“There are a lot of fantastic services for young people that aren’t quite as specific. We do a lot of referrals to Headspace, youth refuges and other support services, but there isn’t really another service available like ours that is an integrated legal service.”

Ms Sullivan says the advantage of an integrated service is that she and Ms McMillan can offer clients a range of legal and non-legal advice without having to refer them elsewhere. They are also able to act as a conduit with police in cases that involve criminal charges and support clients through to court hearings where necessary.
“It can be problematic to empower young people by giving them information about their situation and telling them to speak up about it but then not having the systems or supports in place to deal with the potential consequences or fallout from it.”

While the integrated service offers vital support to many young people, the pair are struggling to keep up with the current demand.
“We get lots of referrals every single day and, for a state-wide service, we’re only staffed by two people, it’s a little difficult,” said Ms McMillan.
“We hope that the Youth and Family Violence Solicitor role will be funded more long-term.”

Currently, the Centre is able to support Ms Sullivan’s role until next June and Ms McMillan’s is funded for another 12 months through the Department of Family and Community Services.
However, the long-term feasibility of the program is uncertain with funding partly contingent on community and philanthropic donations.

“We’re both on pretty unstable funding really and we would absolutely welcome more stable state funding to be able to continue the service because it is really important and there would be a big gap if this service wasn’t here,” said Ms McMillan.

The Centre is currently seeking community support as part of its Christmas Appeal to raise the $50,000 needed to continue the program for the next six months.
Donations can be made via the Marrickville Legal Centre’s website.
Marrickville Legal Centre: (02) 9559 2899
Kids Help Line: 1800 55 1800
1800RESPECT: 1800 737 732
Lifeline: 13 11 14